Finding Humanity in a Hurricane: A Toast to Sandy, and to the Beautiful People of Jersey City

This was a reflection I wrote for The Jersey City Independent after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

Finding Humanity in a Hurricane: A Toast to Sandy, and to the Beautiful People of Jersey City

So, let’s admit it. Sandy was not what we expected.

Maybe we’re a little spoiled. We’ve never been hit by a hurricane like this — actually, one hasn’t made landfall in New Jersey, period, since 1903. Last year, declarations that incoming Irene (who was only a tropical storm when she arrived in NJ) was “historic” echoed today as cries of wolf when we thought about everything predicted that didn’t happen. Yes, she brought lots of devastation and low-laying areas were hurt, but as some of us figured, they’re always hurt. Back then, this reporter used to work for the Jersey Journal covering Hoboken, and was by no means shocked that a good portion of the city was damaged by Hurricane Irene because they always got smashed, even just by regular rainstorms.

So when we all heard Sandy was coming, I was one of those people who didn’t expect much. I figured it would be worse than the cynics expected, better than the paranoid did. Others must have thought the same because we were all joking before she even headed up the East Coast. While she was actually, actively, wreaking havoc further south, we were all joking. People were getting ready to Photoshop pictures of the storm over the Statue of Liberty (because really, what better to do with your pre-Hurricane time?), posting YouTube links of the song “Sandy” from Grease along with way too many pictures of Olivia Newton John — and inevitably, someone made @ahurricanesandy, a Twitter account “impersonating” Sandy for comedic effect.

Some people prepared. I saw all my artists friends on Facebook upholding old bohemian ways. “Got my pencils! I’m ready, bring it on, Sandy!” they declared. “All stocked up on wine!” I definitely saw people getting their share of bread, eggs, water and emergency supplies, but many seemed not to be buying much at all. Others were spending valuable money and prep time on seemingly frivolous purchases. As I found out wandering West Side on Monday morning, my neighborhood seems to put huge priority on, of all things, doughnuts.

The rain started gently as Sandy was still making her way to shore. “Oh, it’s nothing!” many proclaimed. “Well duh, she’s not here yet,” others replied.

Then she hit and it was game time. Me and the rest of the JCI crew spent every second at our computers, watching everything unfold. Thank God I’m a journalist. I not only get to be one of the most informed, up-to-date people in events like this, but I also get to distract myself. In a strange way, even while looking at pictures of some of my favorite neighborhoods underwater or places I grew up with, like the Kennedy Department Store on Central, get damaged, I could only be half-scared. I focused on reporting, reporting, getting the job done. There’s a reason we’re called the Fourth Estate — we’re not clergy, politicians or bourgeoisie, but we’re not quite civilians, either.

But part of me is still civilian. As I watched Downtown Jersey City, which has lately become my stomping ground as an arts journalist still making the switch from hyperlocal (Hudson County) to uber-uber local (just good ol’ JC), I thought about all my good times there and made sure to call one of my best friends who lives by City Hall to make sure she was okay. (She was, but her car drowned.)

Then I heard the roof of the gazebo in Riverview Park got damaged. When I first moved to Jersey City at age 8, I lived maybe two blocks from that park. I remembered the flea markets, strolls with my mom and chats with a woman named Rae who hung out there and once gave me a huge chocolate bunny. More pictures came. I saw terrifying shots of other nearby cities that were extensions of what I considered home — Hoboken, New York City.

Then my power went out and I lost contact with the outside world. Literally powerless, I hunkered down in my house, turned my cellphone off to save power and went to sleep.

The next day, I knew I had to try finding a place with power and/or Internet and survey the damage, especially Downtown JC, where I knew it was bad. Buses weren’t running and I prepared myself to make the 3.3-mile trek. I had done it once or twice before, but back when I was taking Phys Ed. classes about four times a week at McNair Academic near Hamilton Park. Now I’m four years older; also, I don’t really work out. But I shook the dust off my shoes and made my way down West Side, then down Montgomery.

A huge tree down my street had fallen down, crushing two cars and taking down power lines. Signs and canopies on West Side had blown off. Huge puddles — or rather, lakes — had formed near Merseles Street off Montgomery. Several lost thousands due to the flooding; I spoke to Chris Usher, one of the owners of the Kraverie on Mercer, and he said he lost at least $10,000 in food and equipment.

Long lines formed at the few open businesses — Stella’s Pizzeria, Subway, Helen’s Pizza. With its $4 beer sale, Barcade quickly became a congregating spot, as did ShopRite, which offered shoppers a chance to charge their phones using outlets at the end of each aisle as well as get much-needed supplies.

Over the next week, power was the highest blessing; gas and cash the most valuable commodities. Every day in the cold and every night in the dark was torture. With fuel fates tied to random license plate numbers, curfews herding us in and nightfall bringing the ever-present threats of fire and violence, we all wondered — how long would we be trapped in this doubleplusbad, dystopian nightmare?

Have you ever heard the saying “Jersey City people stick together?” It’s true. People congregated on corners, finding out how friends were and what the latest news was. They lent each other supplies, found unplugged ways to have fun (Remember board games? Terrible graphics but really realistic gameplay), broke bread together and rediscovered the value of face-to-face interaction. For every jerk who decided to charge their laptop in the local market and sit in the aisle watching movies for an hour (that’s right, I’m calling you out, because that’s a really selfish thing to do), there was a person inviting people in to charge their phones as soon as their power was restored. For every despicable looter and criminal choosing a moment of vulnerability and darkness for their evil deeds, there was someone desperately searching for ways to help those less fortunate.

We realized who we really cared about, who we were desperate to check in on. One of my best friends, local artist Joe Velez, drove in from Hoboken and climbed seven flights of stairs just to make sure I was okay, an act of kindness and love I won’t soon forget. Our town and county are really so much smaller and yet larger than we realize.

I had taken all my friends across town for granted because they were always just a few keystrokes and texts away; now that they were actually miles away, seeing their faces and hearing their voices was all I wanted to do. Also, I noticed people were being more flirtatious with each other than usual (and in a nice, non-offensive way!) and ahem, I can only imagine the number of babies who will be born around late July. Local arts figure Michelle Mumoli even coined a word for it — “stormance.” Everyone, now keenly aware of their mortality, was fighting harder than ever to not be alone.

Hot showers, cold ice cream, a friend’s smile — yes, I wanted the Internet back and movies and music and TV and Twitter — but at the end of the day, I just wanted to feel warm and loved and to warm and love others around me. Nope, Sandy wasn’t what we expected. Did we expect rain and wind? Yes. But we didn’t expect to rediscover our blessings, our strength and our humanity.

The worst is over, but there’s still work to be done and still people to be helped. If you’d like to volunteer, get more information here. Jersey City people really do stick together, and we’ll get through this.

So cheers to electricity! To NJ Transit! To frozen food! To fully charged cellphones and mobile reception! To the Internet! To friends, to neighbors, to Jersey City!

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About Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Summer Dawn Hortillosa is a journalist specializing in arts and entertainment. Among other things, she is also an award-winning playwright, director, singer-songwriter and actress. Her work has been seen in The Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal and other publications.
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